It takes time to sift through, but Anaheim has one of Orange County’s most robust online disclosures of registered lobbyists who are paid to sway elected officials on policy making.
Yet even with those rules, an FBI corruption probe – and an independent investigation the city commissioned in response – found outsized influence by lobbyists who failed to properly register.
Now, some are questioning what that means for other Orange County cities without such policies in place to help members of the public watchdog the activities of their community’s most influential interest groups.
And who is meeting with, influencing and steering money toward local elected leaders.
Not every city requires lobbyists to register, and only in recent years did one of OC’s largest – Santa Ana – decide to do so when a set of FBI corruption affidavits sent its neighbor city, Anaheim, into upheaval last year.
“The larger cities in California tend to have lobbying disclosure laws. The majority of California cities do not,” said Sean McMorris of California Common Cause, a good-government advocacy group that focuses on money in politics, redistricting, and government transparency.
“Ideally more cities would. The biggest drawbacks for those that don’t are political will – the politicians never think their city needs to have these laws. Number two is the cost involved in implementing and enforcing them.”
Namely, he said the best way cities can support their lobbying disclosure rules is to set up an ethics commission to monitor complaints.
But that would require money, making the idea an easier one for smaller cities to oppose.
“Lobbyists also have to have their due process,” he said. “You’re innocent until proven guilty — those people also have to be afforded opportunities to provide their side of the case and then investigate. All this takes time and resources.”
But the way McMorris sees it, lobbying transparency is a tool that members of the public can find in their belt, in political environments where money has won out.
“We have to have these kinds of laws, given the current parameters that we live under for campaign finance,” he said.
“And when you have special interests in Anaheim — this is one of the few checks we have left.”
Shirley Grindle, the community activist who helped write Orange County’s campaign finance ordinance — and has been watchdogging local government ethics since the 1970s — says one central reform is ban any kind of gifts.
She also calls for the setup of an ethics commission in Anaheim “to oversee and audit campaign filings, lobbyist registration and ethics training.”
“The Anaheim City Council can appease the public criticism if they would enact these ordinances and establish an independent Commission similar to the County’s,” said Grindle, who led a ballot initiative a few years ago establishing a county ethics commission.
The agenda for tonight’s council meeting includes a proposal for a discussion on the hiring of an ethics officer to oversee lobbyist activity.
Meanwhile, the continued fallout of the Anaheim corruption story is prompting local elected officials and watchdogs to think about ways these rules can actually address the behavior they want to discourage.
“It’s not necessarily about whether or not we have lobbyists,” said Cynthia Ward, an Anaheim resident and watchdog who sits on Mayor Ashleigh Aitken’s newly-formed advisory committee to explore potential City Hall reforms.
“It’s whether they’re harming our city.”
A report on corruption at Anaheim City Hall – commissioned by the city council – found the city’s lobbying disclosure rules still empowered multiple lobbyists to hide meetings and improperly influence city leaders.
The result has been a political environment dominated by what the FBI describes as a shadowy network of powerful Disneyland resort interests who convinced city officials to misspend millions in taxpayer dollars with little oversight.
All in a town where half of residents are on public health plans.
Better rules might come down to how a city chooses to define its lobbyists.
In Anaheim, that currently means any person or group that receives at least $500 in payment in a calendar month to “communicate, directly or through his or her agents, with any elected or appointed official, for the purpose of influencing legislative or administrative action of the City of Anaheim or any regional agency that has regulatory oversight, authority or jurisdiction over the City of Anaheim.”
Ward said she wonders if such a definition can take an adequate snapshot of people who try to influence local leaders in secretive ways.
“The alarming thing, to me, is not when a lobbyist shows up at a public meeting and does a presentation — it’s when something controversial comes up, the media pays attention, and constituents are saying, ‘Hey, this seems hanky,’ and there’s no discussion amongst policy makers. They just vote in a bloc without asking questions and somebody has convinced them behind the scenes.”
It’s a situation that frequently happened under disgraced former Mayor Harry Sidhu, who earlier this month agreed to plead guilty to lying to investigators about leaking critical information to an Angels consultant while trying to ram through the stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign support from team officials.
Even before Anaheim was slapped with a Surplus Land Act violation for their attempted sale of Angel Stadium, state legislators and former Mayor Tom Tait called on the city council to slow the sale down and debate the issue publicly.
Ward is one member of a new advisory committee put together by Mayor Ashliegh Aitken in response to Anaheim’s City Hall corruption scandal, most recently publicized by a July 31 internal investigation report which City Council members ordered in response to the FBI probe.
Ward says it’s up to the mayor to decide what kind of issues the committee will magnify, but added that lobbyist activity is certainly something she’s discussed with neighbors and friends.
Anaheim City Hall spokesman Mike Lyster said lobbyists are responsible for registering their activity.
“The city’s rules make lobbyists responsible for disclosing activities,” Lyster said in a Wednesday email. “Expanding on the city’s lobbying rules remains a potential discussion for our City Council.”
If you ask an elected leader over in Irvine:
“The rules need to actually be enforced,” said City Council Member Kathleen Treseder, who also sees barriers to public information when it comes to the technical definition of a lobbyist.
In recent months, Treseder publicly challenged one lobbyist in her town over the use of a proposed amphitheater which would be paid for by taxpayers and the biggest attraction in the city’s massive Great Park.
Late last month, City Council members voted to stop negotiating an amphitheater contract with a private music promoter, Live Nation, in favor of having more control over what would be a publicly-owned venue and making sure the city gets a return on its investment.
It prompted a fierce battle between residents and the private promoter now fighting to keep its plans in place, and recently featured a contentious – and public – back-and-forth between Treseder and a Live Nation lobbyist during a recent council meeting.
Namely, the dispute was over whether the lobbyist in question, Patrick Strader, was lobbying for Live Nation at all.
Strader has been negotiating on Live Nation’s behalf since May, but maintains he’s not being paid for his work as a lobbyist and has thus not filed any disclosures for it.
He likewise publicly denied working for Live Nation in response to Treseder during the council’s July 25 meeting.
“The ethics ordinance and the lobbying ordinance of the City of Irvine states that when a person is lobbying on a municipal question and has earned ten thousand dollars, they have to register that person as a client,” Strader said at the podium. “I have not triggered the lobbyist registration because I have not been paid to be a lobbyist on this item. I’m here today facilitating it, and as soon as I trigger something that would cause me to file, I will file appropriately.”
To Treseder, the issue comes down to lobbyists knowing the rules too well.
“He was clearly lobbying, but skirted our ordinance,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.
She said the enforceability of such rules might rely on taking sunshine disclosure responsibilities out of city staff’s hands.
And putting them into that of a city-impaneled ethics commission.
“It needs to be the responsibility of an independent ethics commission who can find violations and can recommend sanctions,” Treseder said, echoing McMorris of Common Cause.
Lobbyists can sway city council members, and – while it’s widely considered improper for city council members to do so – council members can influence city staff directly, Treseder said.
“What I would be concerned about is, if in staff hands, the lobbyists themselves could threaten staff members, and second, if lobbyists are working hand-in-hand with certain council members, they could direct council members to threaten staff,” Treseder said.
“It’s very important to have an independent commission to prevent lobbyists from taking those pathways,” she said.
Similarly, McMorris argued that an ethics commission can enjoy a level of separation that City Hall staff can’t.
“Even if you put the city attorney in charge of it — city attorneys are not unsusceptible to pressure. They’re basically under contract, but in the back of their mind — they’re not supposed to but they’re human — they’re considering, ‘Well, I have a city council that thinks one way. Are they not going to be happy when I think certain donors of theirs broke lobbying laws?’”
“A city may have a fairly good lobbying disclosure law on its face, but without the appropriate enforcement mechanisms, proper complaint procedures – that can severely diminish the efficacy of these laws.”
At the end of the day, local governments can meet the “letter of the law” in ways that still make influence-peddling “impossible to track,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College.
Going through online filings to find lobbying activity of interest can take a sizable chunk of someone’s day, Balma said.
“Yes, it’s available, but I don’t have time to open 27 file forms for each individual candidate to discover the pattern.”
“It’s that old question of, is it incompetence or malice? That we’re using old technology? That it’s not searchable? That it’s not readily available?” Balma said. “But it certainly benefits the incumbents.”
“It certainly benefits the well-connected.”
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